On Top Of The World At Willis Tower
Updated: Jun 14, 2019
If you do any research at all before going to Chicago, you'll find Willis Tower (formally known as Sears Tower) at the top of every list. This skyscraper is located in the heart of Downtown Chicago, giving the brave souls who venture to the top a soaring birds eye-view of the entire city. If you're planning a trip to Chi Town and looking at Willis Tower photos right now thinking to yourself "hell to the nope," I have to insist you give it a second thought. Here's why.
Let me preface this experience by saying I am by no means an adrenaline junkie, daredevil, risk-taker, but heights never really bothered me. I've never experienced vertigo or felt uneasy looking out over a cliff. Heights aren't what scares me, but rather the idea of falling is what really freaks me out. I think if most of us were to dig down to the core of our fear of heights, we would find that the true fear is something more dynamic and complicated than being high above the ground. Whether it be fear of falling, the lack of control you feel when your feet aren't grounded or the plain sublimeness of seeing the world carry on below while you watch from above, your fear of heights comes from something much deeper.
With that being said, this experience is one to take you out of your comfort zone but in the best way possible. Being up there encourages you to face your fears straight on in a safe and controlled environment. The worst part of fear is that you are basing it on "what ifs" and your brain automatically assembles the worst case scenarios in a fight or flight fashion. You are always going to imagine something to be much scarier than it actually is. Think: getting a shot as a child. Terrifying beforehand but almost laughable afterwards (unless you're like me who cried for shots until I was circa 20 years old).
Rob was definitely in the category of reluctant agreement to the whole thing, clearly nervous about being up so high. Heights have never been his thing. He could definitely tell how excited I was to experience the whole thing, so he agreed to go up with me and take some photos on "the ledge". He knew there was no way I would leave the city without a totally Instagramable photo from the skydeck, so off we went towards Willis Tower on a partly cloudy Friday afternoon.
We were guided down a couple of floors upon entering and went through security (for obvious reasons) before being directed to the ticketing line. PRO TIP: get your tickets online through the website and load them onto your phone. You'll save so much time having them preloaded and won't have to stand in a lengthy line.
The next 20 or so minutes were spent weaving through belted lines through a museum looking space, hosting photos of prominent Chicagoans, history of the tower and fun exhibits boasting fun facts and comparing the building's height to other prominent structures such as the Eiffel tower and the pyramids in Egypt. One of my personal favorites was a lifestyle cutout of Obama with a plaque next to it stating "Forget feet, miles or kilometers— the tower is 283 Barack Obamas tall." I died.
We finally reached the elevators and were snuggly packed into a pretty standard looking elevator with a tv monitor hung above the doors. We were instructed to stand closely and face the elevator doors. Once they closed, a video began on the screen above as we felt the elevator lift off. The tv informed us of what floor we were on and how many feet we were going as we traveled up to the 103rd floor. As we continued our ascent to the top, the screen informed us that we were traveling 1,600 feet per minute. That's when the elevator started to shake. I mean like, unsettling shaking. THAT's when I started to get freaked out. (remember the whole falling thing? that works for elevators too).
Luckily, the entire elevator ride lasted just over a minute or so. The video voice announced that we had reached the top as the floor display showed 103. We made it. The doors opened and people flooded out of the gates. When I stepped out, I was almost blinded by how bright it was out there. For a second I could see nothing out of the windows but white light until my eyes finally adjusted from the dimly lit elevator. As I moved towards the floor to ceiling windows, the white faded into what looked like a little lego town below. It was absolutely insane. We could see for miles across Chicago with 360 degree views. The entire floor is dedicated to viewing, so expansive windows wrapped around the entire space. We walked around the loop, soaking in the views of Chicago from Lake Michigan to the inner city.
After we did the loop, we got in line (yes, another line) to experience "the ledge" which is basically a clear, glass box that is pushed out from the building, allowing you to see over, under, and all around you. There were 4 ledges and 2 lines formed of anxious people, excited to have their photos taken. What they DON'T tell you is that each group on has 60 seconds out on the ledge. Yep, that's it. One whole minute to get as many photos as possible and appreciate the thrilling attraction. My first thought was "bullshit" but after seeing how many people were in line, I totally got it. There were literally staff members at the front of the line, timing each group with a stopwatch and ushering them out of the box when they ran over time.
There were so many people, that each group didn't even have the whole box to yourself, you had to share the ledge with another group who had one corner as you occupy another. We were stoked to get the "good box" and the "best side", aka the area with the best lighting and clearest views of the city. I'll admit that stepping onto the ledge and looking down was thrilling. I don't think my brain even comprehended how high up we were. It felt like a dream, like it wasn't REALLY a whole city below but some sort of simulation. What a crazy feeling to be able to see so much of a city at one single point in time.
After the initial excitement, we got straight to work. Bam! Photo. Bam! Photo. Pose. Photo. Pose. Photo. SWITCH. Pose. Photo. Pose. Photo. SELFIE. Photo. Bam! Bam! Bam! Rob and I were HUSTLING to take as many photos of each other as we could in 30 seconds flat, while keeping some time for the attendant to grab a few shots of us together. To be honest, there really isn't even time to be scared because you feel so rushed to capture the moment. It's also way to beautiful to be worried about your position in the air.
The views are breathtaking and the opportunity to be this high up without being in an aircraft is rare and unique. Being up there is extremely humbling and awe-inspiring. You realize how big everything is and how small everything is at the same time. This is definitely something I will always remember doing and the view is one for the books. If you're nervous, that's okay! Rob was hesitant but all smiles afterwards as we rode the elevator back down. We both walked away from Willis tower feeling exhilarated and proud, as if we were on top of the world.